That God turns all things to good is evident in the salvation of the sailors who threw Jonah into the sea. We know nothing of these men, who they were and where they were from, how many of them there were, or what gods they worshiped. We know only that God used Jonah’s disobedience and flight for their salvation, and that therefore they too were among God’s chosen, among the few outside of Israel who were His in the Old Testament.
When their voyage began these sailors were still heathen men. While the storm raged they still prayed to their heathen gods. When finally the storm ceased after Jonah was thrown overboard, they were praying to the one true God and worshiping Him, an amazing and divinely worked change of course for these men. Their voyage to Tarshish would continue, but spiritually they had set sail on another very different voyage, a voyage that would end in that only “haven of rest.”
Their prayer before throwing Jonah overboard was an acknowledgment that not the gods they had once worshiped but Jehovah was Sovereign and Judge: “We beseech thee, O Lord, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee” (1:14). Confessing that, they also pleaded that He not lay Jonah’s certain death to their charge. After throwing Jonah out of the ship and witnessing the calming of the storm, they: “feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows” (2:16). These were not the actions of unsaved men.
Their fear of the Lord when all was done was not the same as their fear of the storm or of Jonah’s disobedience (1:5, 10). That fear was sheer terror over their impending doom. The fear of the Lord is a reverence and awe that understands something of His greatness and glory. It is the expression of a believing heart and is the beginning of true wisdom. It was such in the case of these sailors. Thus the contrast between 1:5: “Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them,” and 1:16: “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows”! Nothing more is needed to convince us that these men will be in heaven with us someday.
God used many things for the sailors’ salvation: the storm, so unusual in its fury and coming; the lot and its results; Jonah’s confession of Jehovah as the true God, weak and lacking as it was; his acknowledgment that the storm had come for his sake; Jonah’s insistence that he had to be thrown overboard for what he had done in disobeying God; and the immediate cessation of the storm when he was no longer in the ship. All these things preached the need for repentance and faith to the sailors, and God used them for good. God used especially the work of His Spirit, for waves and words are in vain without the presence and power of the Spirit.
Most important, though, are the words of Jonah. Those words name and show the glory of the one God and, without those words, humanly speaking, the sailors would have continued in their ignorance of Him. It was a very short sermon preached by a reluctant and still disobedient prophet, but it was enough for the power and grace of God, who continues to use weakest means—sinful preachers and the preaching itself—to fulfill His will in the salvation of many.
What happened to these sailors thereafter we do not know, any more than we know the rest of the history of the repentant Ninevites. Nor need we know, for the story is in the Word not to satisfy our curiosity but to demonstrate to all who know the story that salvation is of the Lord. He showed that again in Nineveh. He showed that in Jonah’s repentance and in the salvation of these heathen sailors. He does everywhere and always according to His own will and good pleasure in heaven, on earth, in the sea, and among men.
What a lesson that is for those who preach the gospel and see only some repenting, believing and obeying, whether in the church or on the mission field! What a lesson when the fruits of the gospel seem small and unfit for the glory of God, and when the church is small and despised! How we need to learn this when in the same family some receive the teaching of their parents and others do not! When our witnessing is in vain, our good example disregarded, when it seems we stand alone in defense of the truth and in the way of obedience to God, we must remember Jonah and the sailors: Salvation is indeed of the Lord.
That sovereign mercy of God is always shown to the disobedient and rebellious, never to those who have made themselves fit for God’s mercy or who have distinguished themselves in any way before God. Whether by profane, idol-worshiping sailors, by cruel and heartless Ninevites, or by disobedient prophets, God’s mercy is never merited. That lesson Israel had to learn. Priding themselves on their special place in God’s purpose, thinking their privileges were deserved, they needed to learn that salvation is not of him that wills nor of him that runs but of God who shows mercy (Rom. 9:16).
They would not learn it from these heathen sailors who never appeared again in sacred history. Perhaps some learned it from Jonah when he finally returned to his own people with the story that is recorded here, though we know nothing of his later history. Learn it they must, and so must we if we are to be saved, for sinful pride must be humbled and all dependence on self taken away before faith in God’s great salvation can manifest itself.
How shameful, that so many in Israel worshiped the gods these men had forsaken! How shameful that the majority would not hear the Word of God that was brought to them in all its Old Testament fullness, would not repent and believe, when these heathen sailors humbled themselves at the brief testimony of Jonah. What shame that they who knew the grace and mercy of Jehovah to their nation and who had the promises turned away, when these men repented at the testimony that Jehovah was the God of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things, and the Judge! What shame for Jonah who had not yet forsaken his disobedience and rebellion!
How shameful that so many today who have the gospel in all its New Testament fullness, who know that Christ has come and who know what He has done, are slow to hear and obey! How shameful it is when men and women in the visible church worship the gods of the heathen, health and wealth, pleasure and fame! What shame when converts from Africa and Asia are more zealous for God than those who have had the gospel for many generations!
That God turned the disobedience of His prophet to the salvation of these heathen is not an excuse for sin, certainly not for Jonah’s gross disobedience. Perhaps that was the reason, too, why Jonah never knew that those sailors had been saved—he was not privileged to witness such a wonder and would not in his hard-heartedness have appreciated their repentance in any case. There is never an excuse for disobedience, sin, and bad behavior. It is among the “all things” that work together for good to those who love God, but it is not itself “good.” God shows that by further chastising Jonah with the terrors of drowning and those three frightening days in the belly of the fish.
God’s sovereignty over sin is such that though He decrees and rules over sin, even brings it to pass, He is never to blame for the wickedness of saints or of the unsaved—He is not the Author of sin. That is part of His sovereignty. Such control and arrangement over the actions of others would leave us equally or more responsible for their wickedness, but God is able as Sovereign to direct and control all things without even being to blame for the wickedness of men and devils. Thus the Belgic Confession of Faith:
We believe that the same God, after He had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that He rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment: nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed. For His power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that He orders and executes His work in the most excellent and just manner, even then, when devils and wicked men act unjustly (Art. 13).